The town of Seaside began with a story.
"The power of a story is pulling from the past and projecting it into the future, like a message in a bottle," said Seaside Founder Robert Davis.
Davis and his wife, Daryl, spoke Tuesday to the local chapter of Florida Public Relations Association about the town they built.
As Davis tells it, the story of Seaside began 70 years ago, as he grew up making family trips to the beach. He always remembered sitting on the porch and stoop of those simple houses at night, waiting for the inside to cool off enough to go back indoors since there was no air conditioning. While they waited, his elders told stories as the younger ones listened.
"Those times of stoop sitting and the storytelling became some of my favorite memories," he said.
As an adult, with the addition of air conditioning and modern entertainment, Davis found himself missing the old ways he grew up with. When he inherited 80 acres of undeveloped land along County Road 30A in South Walton, Davis envisioned creating a place where the lifestyle he experienced at the beach as a child was the norm.
In attempting to sell his vision to outsiders, Davis used the marketing tool he learned as a child: storytelling.
"We told our stories to would-be buyers in an effort to convince them to pass this tradition down to their grandchildren," said Davis.
Fortunately, the news media is always on the lookout for something new and different to write about, and the concept of Seaside was just that.
The Davises were fortunate to meet Louis Joyner, an editor at Southern Living magazine, before breaking ground. Later, he came down and was able to tell the story, thanks to long-lens cameras, since there was not much here, Davis says with a chuckle now.
Other breakthroughs that helped put Seaside on the map were a timely architectural exhibit in New York, and an article that came out in the Wall Street Journal.
"We were doing something different and reviving small town living. Kids had grown up in suburbia, but suburbia is not safe and the kids were spending a lot of time in cars, strapped in car seats," said Davis. "Here, we sat on the porch and tried to get people to slow down long enough to hear what we were doing."
With no real marketing/PR budget to speak of, the Davises did their own. They began creating events like sand-castle building, watermelon spitting, showing movies, bringing in storytellers from Port St. Joe — all in an effort to draw people out from Panama City. Some events went well, and the Davises kept repeating the popular ones and brainstorming new ones.
"People were not familiar with the area, but little by little the events caught on and people brought their friends and more people came," said Daryl.
Daryl began hosting weekly Seaside Saturday Markets, and they had shrimp boils, cooked gumbo and kosher hot dogs — anything to lure people out to the lonely stretch of road known as 30A.
Eventually, the Davises' homegrown marketing paid off and people began flocking to their little town, staying, making their own memories, and telling their own stories on the porches.
And, the town grew and grew.
"Everything we did had a story in it; we could weave a good tale," said Daryl. "Such as, how the 'soldiers of night crew' architects lived on the porch of the yellow house or in Quonset huts in Point Washington. The stories continued to grow as more people participated in building the town. Now, Seaside is made up of one story after another, and we are still making them."
As for the town's building code, it was drawn up on a sheet of paper over dinner by Davis and town architect Andres Duany.
With so much talk these days about accessibility and making it easier for people to get here, the Davises found that the people who would come here found the area's inaccessibility charming.
"There was an exciting element of not being able to easily get here," said Daryl. "It was helpful, along with the pristine beach."
"Seaside is only a few hours harder to get to than South Hampton and not as crowded and not overdeveloped," Davis chimed in. "If they could get to Hilton Head and its crowded overdevelopment with a change of planes, they could get here."
The Davises knew they had made it when the press started paying more attention and this was a place they wanted to come.
"When the press started crackling, and we started getting on magazine covers, the project began taking on a life of its own. Seaside came to resemble a cult of young, hip people as we had something new and different," said Daryl. "Ten or 15 years went by before we looked up again. It was a good opportunity to be part of something."
The Davises founded their town in 1981. The town has been described by Time magazine as astonishing. Many books and articles have hailed it as the embodiment of the New Urbanism movement, and the Davises have received numerous awards for their vision. The couple currently lives in Seaside about half the year, with the rest spent at their home in San Francisco, with frequent trips to Italy.
"I can't wait to see how the story evolves over the next 30 years," Davis said.